Although not advisable, the best approach to Portmeirion is from the sea. But be warned: you will be convinced you’ve strayed and ended up off the coast of Italy. For the riot of ice-cream coloured buildings tumbling down the cliffs is not the normal townscape of north Wales, more noted for its four-square, sturdy, unadorned architecture. But this town is all about breaking the rules.
Perched on a sheltered peninsula above Porthmadog estuary in Snowdonia, the village of Portmeirion, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, is the creation of the genial eccentric Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He was a true visionary. And Portmeirion’s Mediterranean colours, Italianate flourishes and witty conceits are every bit as fresh and invigorating as when it opened in 1926.
Sir Clough was not strictly an architect, having only three months training, but more an artist with a passionate love of buildings and their relationship with the landscape. He wanted to show that good design can enhance, not destroy, a beautiful site. More specifically, he wanted to bring architecture to the masses, not by a single, flamboyant gesture, but via groups of everyday buildings - cottages, townhouses and meeting places. He wanted to show architecture was not an elite, complicated subject but easy and accessible. "If I presented it with a light opera touch, make it fun, it might hook them," he once said.
Long before "interactive" became the buzzword of trendy museums, Sir Clough was on to it. People not only came to look at his designs but, temporarily, lived in them. The whole of Portmeirion is a hotel, which can confuse visitors who insist on staying in the hotel not the village.
The largest building is the site’s original Victorian house, now the hotel restaurant and main building, with the rest of the rooms and self-catering apartments spread through the village, some 150 bed-spaces in around 30 different houses. You could find yourself sleeping in a Georgian mansion, a gatehouse, a look-out tower or eye-level with a dome.
Quite simply, staying there brings all the childish excitement of "playing house" in a cross between Disney , a stage set and a Tuscan hill town. To be strictly correct, although Italianate in feel - Mediterranean colours and shuttered windows, all crowned by a glorious campanile - there are Jacobean, Dutch, Georgian and English flourishes.
The best way to enjoy it is to wander where your eye takes you. It is full of surprises. One minute you’re looking at the impressive facade of Unicorn, a Georgian mansion. Wander round the back and it shrinks to bungalow size. Bridge House, which straddles the road supported by the natural rocks, has one classically elegant side, the other an exuberant wash of bright blue and orange.
Sir Clough loved visual jokes. He proved that you can combine the practical and functional with the witty and inspired. The onion dome on Chantry Row is only half a dome, but conveniently hides an ugly chimney. The elegant, neo-classical windows on the roadside of Cliff House are trompe-l’oeil (a favoured device) ensuring privacy for the occupants and visual interest to passersby. The electricity sub-station is disguised as a classical loggia, the telephone box is tucked inside a stone tower.
After a while, you get the hang of Sir Clough and begin to look for his trademark whims and fancies. The foreshortened perspectives of towers to give the illusion of height, the cheeky ornamentation (a sun peeping behind clouds, a bust of Shakespeare teetering on a balcony) to relieve dull faades. At this point, ask nicely at reception to borrow the key to the Campanile. Climb to the top - fear of heights is a lame excuse, Sir Clough was laying gold leaf on the Dome’s lantern ball when nearing 80 - and savour the bird’s-eye view.
Admire the way the houses, wildly different in style, seamlessly link together. Enjoy the crazily assorted but visually appealing chimney pots. Even the ludicrous Burmese dancing figures atop Ionic columns in the Piazza seem in keeping. The Piazza will be familiar to followers of the 1960s cult television programme, The Prisoner. It was here that the human chess game was played. For Prisoner groupies, who make up about 15 per cent of visitors, there’s a whole shop devoted to its ephemera. Collectors of the famous Portmeirion pottery, started in the 1960s by Sir Clough’s daughter, Susan - at 80-something she is still designing - will be in their element.
The village has no obvious "attrac- tions" - no playgrounds, museums or even a church for that matter (although it does have a Town Hall, built to house a sumptuous 17th-century ballroom salvaged by Sir Clough from Emral Hall in Flintshire). But gradually you realise it doesn’t need any. Children scamper around playing make-believe with the funny-shaped buildings. So do the grown-ups.
The sand in the estuary is glorious for rounders, sandcastle building and walks. At low tide, it’s possible to walk to the uninhabited island, Ynys Gifftan, even to the far shore. However, due to its great tidal reach, and lack of berthing facilities, a water-borne approach to Portmeirion is not advisable. The boat moored to the quay below the hotel is the salvaged remains of a local trading ketch that has been firmly cemented to dry land - a typical Sir Clough wheeze - since 1930.
There are walks along cliff-paths to hidden grottoes and the jolly, "folly" lighthouse (in reality, sheet metal with an upturned pig boiler on top). Myriads of paths lead through the surrounding woodland to lakes, bowers and pagodas. Because of the peninsula’s sheltered position, warmed by the Gulf Stream, the woods are thick with bamboo, cedars, eucalyptus, gunnera and blooming with hydrangea, azalea and rhododendron.
After a while, you adapt to the pace, a sort of Mediterranean stroll, stopping every so often for an ice-cream, a coffee overlooking the Piazza, or to read a book in a quiet bower.
Above all, Portmeirion is a place to chill out - Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles, took the Gate House for the summer in the 1960s; Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit during a five-day stay in the Fountain in 1941.
But it is at its magical best when the day-trippers leave at 5:30pm. Then there is the time and space to appreciate the gorgeous, mad exuberance of the place. For a few hours, as you sip cocktails on the terrace, enjoy dinner in the grand, glass-fronted, curvilinear dining room and take a post-prandial stroll along the palm-fringed quay, you could be on the Riviera, the Cte d’Azur, Capri. Who knows?
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Monday 20 May 2013
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